In Defense Of Ideology
If the right-wing want victory, they must embrace ideology. In this post, Madeleine considers the value of art history and narratology in the context of ideology.
Ideology has earned a foul reputation among (some) right-wing and classical liberal commentators. This is mainly in response to the growing (and near complete) influence of progressive movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Politicans ranging from AOC to Jeremy Corbyn are proudly ideological: they present a seductive narrative of oppression and a visionary outlook for the future. Adding to this is the disgust many conservatives and right-wingers have towards ideologies such as communism. The narrative that ideology, within itself, has caused mass suffering and death is popular among writers such as Jordan Peterson and James Lindsay. They may disagree with the ‘right-wing’ label being applied to themselves, but there is little point in denying the impact they’ve had on mainstream right-wing thought.
Although it is tempting for any right-wing thinker to take apart their retrospective ideologies, it is ultimately useless. This does not make AOC or Jeremy Corbyn any less appealing to a voter. Even if such ideologies lead to tyranny and evil (The Green New Deal is just pretentious communism, right?), conservatives and right-wingers are wrong to treat ideology as inherently evil. I’d argue that humans need ideology, as it offers a structured methodology in understanding the world.
More than that, a well-developed ideology can improve our lives and interactions with others. Although not all ideologies are equal (and certainly, in history - some have outright sucked) it is foolish to dismiss ideology due to fears of dystopia or a new coming of fascism / communism. Those prone to utopian thinking are not moved by warnings of a dystopia. Even if they concede ground on the Soviet Union being bad, this won’t make them abandon ideology or utopian thinking. Of course, we have Jordan Peterson to remind us of a man who saw the failure of ideology.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a terrific writer, and The Gulag Archipelago is required reading for the human race. There is no point in denying he saw twisted ideologies gut his country and life. As he warns:
“Macbeth's self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others' eyes, so that he won't hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors.”
Solzhenitsyn is correct. Ideology can, and frequently does, fuel evil. However, the Russian author is smart to understand that humans can’t abandon ideology all together. This is why Solzhenitsyn argues contemporary citizens to not ‘defeat’ ideology, but to transcend it (this is why he states ideology as a fuel for evil, as opposed to evil itself). Unfortunately, many commentators such as Jordan Peterson confuse transcendence with defeat, and thus, obstruct Solzhenitsyn’s point. How can I claim Solzhenitsyn wants us to transcend ideology? Well, I’d argue its his defense of Orthodox Christianity. Solzhenitsyn appreciates the sharpness of well-defined principles and values.
“Communist propaganda would sometimes include statements such as "we include almost all the commandments of the Gospel in our ideology". The difference is that the Gospel asks all this to be achieved through love, through self-limitation, but socialism only uses coercion. This is one point.”
But having principles and values doesn’t make you an ideologue. You must go a step further and use such conceptions to form a worldview, or a sense of order. This is what Solzhenitsyn has done. Even if you do not agree with his Christianity, his acceptance of Russia and Putin or his own viewpoints on good or evil, it is hard not to admire how Solzhenitsyn argues for his own ideology. He offers more than abstract values and principles - Solzhenitsyn is a storyteller, after all. Within Solzhenitsyn, is a narrative of the past, present and future. This is what modern conservativism lacks - storytelling.
I suppose this is due to scepticism about storytelling. One criticism I read about ‘woke’ movements is how they simplify complex topics such as race. By constructing a narrative of systemic oppression throughout American history, they miss nuance and essential details. (Hey, Obama became President and he’s black). But narration and storytelling do not need to speak for every situation to evoke emotion and a response out of their audience. Storytelling is not the same as analysis or argument. If people find some truth or meaning in the story they are being told, they may forgive less practical elements. Obama’s success and richness will not persuade anyone that there isn’t systemic racism against blacks in modern America.
This is why conservatives who argue that ‘systemic racism doesn’t exist’ are shooting themselves in the foot. To deny the potency of systems and structures sounds ludicrous, because it is. Ben Shapiro’s witty retort ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ applies in reverse. Stories need to evoke rich emotions and feelings from their audience, and they can do this regardless of any ‘fact’ mentioned. Classical liberals and conservatives emphasize the Enlightenment, the apparent triumph of logic, reason and science over emotion and faith. But this victory was short lived.
Many in the 21st century are sceptical of the Enlightenment - and they have good reasons. Some range from silly (it’s full of white men!) to the sophisticated (humans are emotional animals who do not structure their lives on rational lines). Ultimately, a wish to return to Enlightenment values is just as foolish as a Pre-Raphaelite painter wanting to visit Camelot. It feels like a rehash of things of done previously - and although marvelous, we must accept the reasons why they fell out of fashion.
The Lure of Ideology
Since 2019, I’ve run a blog dedicated to literature. I’ve studied historical and literary fiction at a tertiary level and am an active creative writer. I adore art galleries and museums, and believe in the power of art. Right now, I’m studying a unit in Renaissance and Baroque art as a postgraduate student. I’d argue art is one of the most sophisticated expressions of intellectual history. Of course, art is driven by concepts of beauty and transcendence. Even if we disagree about the merits of a particular artist, this does not diminish the power art has. Art history is the best way to express my next point.
Numerous Western art movements, whether Romanticism or Surrealism, are fuelled by ideology or at the very least, a specific worldview. There’s a tendency among young conservatives to believe the most supreme art and literature is free of ideology. This is not true. In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the French author clarifies his position on social ills, governance and redemption. But calling Les Miserables an ‘ideological text’ rings hollow. The term ‘ideological’ seems to belong to Captain Marvel, or whatever crap Marvel is pushing. But what seperates Victor Hugo from contemporary attempts at ‘art’ is his understanding of character. Whether we discuss Cosette, Javert, Enjolras or Jean Valjean, we end up appreciating their vast complex natures and intricate lives. Because of this, Les Miserables has ideological foundations, but is ultimately, literature for humanity.
Character is essential to art history. I previously mentioned the Pre-Raphaelites, let us return to them. Many paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti feature beautiful women in melodramtic poses. In Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais, Hamlet’s lover is overcome with grief and lies in melancholic despair. Although Millais paints nature in great detail, the painting would lose its effect without Ophelia. Even artists who painted objects or nature, such as Vincent Van Gogh, knew the value of character. In Starry Night - one of Van Gogh’s most famous and best - the characters are clearly Van Gogh and the viewer. The excellence of Starry Night is how the painting conveys experiences, emotions and thoughts that words or portraits cannot.
For a more intimate perspective, consider architecture. The great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, are full of characters: from the parish, to the bishops, to Christ on the Stations of the Cross, to the choir. Architecture is a very rare art form in that its characters are not static, nor do they follow a predestined path. My point is the marvels of architecture stem not just from the building itself, but how humans interact with it.
Ideologies understand character. They give purpose (whether rightly or wrongly) to all of its ‘characters.’ Everyone has a role to play in the story of this civilization, even if its not positive. This is my problem with many conservative and classical liberal thinkers - there is little engagement with storytelling or narratology. Sir Roger Scruton was keenly aware of this problem, and produced great writings on beauty and conservative thought. He presented a well-thought out narrative on human life, and it’s a great (yet predictable) shame that it didn’t overhaul mainstream conservatism.
The Changing Ideology
Art and literary history is full of debate, emotion, politics and conflict. This is not necessarily between academics, but within patrons and artists. If art is fundamentally ideological, then the best way to argue against an ideology is with one of your own. The Catholics understood this during early modern history. The Counter-Reformation is fascinating, primarily because art was treated like a weapon. As Protestant movements usurped Catholic power in England, Germany and parts of Switzerland, (as well as other areas), the once-Catholic cathedrals and churches were refashioned into another faith. The churches became more stripped back, less lavish, and more humble. Compare this to the Jesuits in Lucerne, who employed baroque styles in their places of worship. The well-mannered Protestant art was now against the lavish and extravagent aesthetic of the Catholic Church.
Within these styles, were ideologies about faith and life. In early 2020, I visited Lucerne and went inside the Jesuit church. It certainly has a ‘wow’ factor, and such a thing can only be conjured if people are passionate about their cause. Regardless of my thoughts on the Reformation, or religion in general, there is no denying the passionate emotions present in religious art. Such emotions reflect ideologies - but also express to others why they should care about the Reformation or the Catholic response. I rarely see this on the right, where many (like Ben Shapiro) dismiss the potency of emotion. On the left, emotion is adored. I recall Trump’s election in 2016 where crying scenes of Clinton supporters (all women) were met with empathy from other left-wingers. Such feelings of discrimination and unfairness fuelled the left even further, which explains their eventual victory in 2020.
To clarify: I’m not saying the right should become as emotional as the left. No. But shying away from emotion, any vulnerability or greater ambition, has done the right no favours. Ideologies are fundamentally emotional affairs, and this is not necessarily bad.
Emotions Are Irrational and Lack Logic - Doesn’t That Set Ideology Back?
I understand the argument that ideologies evoke emotion, and if humans are irrational beings who can’t wait to unleash their anger on the masses, then irrational behaviour will result. But ideologies do not need to be slaves to emotion. A sophisticated ideology would tame emotion, and wield it when its useful. This is why narratives, emotion, character, storytelling and revolt are all necessary to an ideology. Without these elements, you just have a list of policy suggestions or critiques of society. Humans need more than that.
A good ideology (in my opinion) answers the needs of a civilization (and the individuals within it) in both abstract and concrete ways. Ideology shouldn’t be an exuse to tell simplistic lies. My point is that ideology is far more than what conservatives think it is. It’s a vehicle for meaning, and isn’t that we need? If Jordan Peterson accepts the limitations of postmodernism, then wouldn’t he embrace ideology a bit more?
We shouldn’t be so afraid of big ideas. They have shaped history, and will shape our future. But I believe some conservatives are scared of abstract ideas, or even accepting the limitations of the Enlightenment. Conservatives, classical liberals - mostly lack an ideology. Without one, traits of defeatism, cowardice and apathy will only increase.